Stacey Abrams and the pol­i­tics of ro­mance

The Ge­or­gia can­di­date’s genre nov­els re­flect her pro­gres­sivism, says critic

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Palmer Rampell Twit­ter: @PalmerRam­pell

If she wins her elec­tion, Stacey Abrams, the Demo­cratic can­di­date for gov­er­nor of Ge­or­gia, will be­come the na­tion’s first black fe­male gov­er­nor. She’d also be the first gov­er­nor who writes ro­man­tic sus­pense nov­els — eight of them, in fact, pub­lished un­der the pseu­do­nym Se­lena Mont­gomery. It is tempt­ing to dis­miss these fic­tions as a friv­o­lous dal­liance, but Abrams con­nects her lit­er­ary work to her pol­i­tics. As she told En­ter­tain­ment Weekly in Septem­ber, “My prin­ci­ples flow through and are ev­i­dent in ev­ery­thing I write.”

It may not come as a sur­prise that her ro­mance nov­els are im­bued with a strong sense of so­cial jus­tice. But Abrams is hardly the only writer — or reader — to iden­tify a rad­i­cal un­der­cur­rent in this fre­quently de­rided genre. Al­though it has an un­der­stand­able rep­u­ta­tion for af­firm­ing pa­tri­ar­chal norms, ro­mance fic­tion has long en­abled women to re­think the world in their own terms, imag­in­ing com­mu­ni­ties ded­i­cated to their own hap­pi­ness. Ro­mance nov­els are of­ten places where women can re­al­ize their sex­ual de­sires and en­vi­sion more utopian ways of be­ing.

Abrams, ac­cord­ingly, links the work of so­cial jus­tice to the ex­pe­ri­ence of fall­ing in love. The plots of her books fre­quently echo the key pil­lars of her cam­paign plat­form — es­pe­cially health care, crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form, child care and the en­vi­ron­ment. In “Se­crets and Lies,” a pro­fes­sional thief and an eth­nob­otanist thwart big pharma by re­turn­ing a valu­able drug to in­dige­nous peo­ples in South Amer­ica. “Reck­less” finds a de­fense lawyer and a sher­iff team­ing up to ex­on­er­ate the black owner of an or­phan­age from a false ac­cu­sa­tion of mur­der. And in “De­cep­tion,” an FBI agent and a pro­fes­sional poker player pre­vent a na­ture pre­serve from be­ing con­verted into bio­fu­els.

These aren’t ex­actly the sort of plot­lines the genre is known for. Fem­i­nist crit­ics like Ger­maine Greer, Ann Dou­glas and Lau­ren Ber­lant have de­rided ro­mances for their bad pol­i­tics, not just for their of­ten-medi­ocre writ­ing and sup­posed re­liance on turgid for­mu­las. That’s not en­tirely un­war­ranted: “Bodice rip­pers” from the 1970s, for ex­am­ple, al­most in­evitably fea­tured eroti­cized rape scenes.

But then things be­gan to change (though not ev­ery­one agreed that it was for the bet­ter). Af­ter 1980, a new set of col­lege-ed­u­cated and avowedly fem­i­nist edi­tors, writ­ers and read­ers re­cast the genre in a more pro­gres­sive mold. These new ro­mances typ­i­cally de­picted con­sen­sual sex, of­ten fea­tured ca­reer women and rarely re­volved around the loss of the hero­ine’s vir­gin­ity. De­spite that, crit­ics like Ta­nia Modleski al­lege that these nov­els still hold that a woman’s ful­fill­ment comes in her choice of a man; even ro­mance’s staunch­est de­fend­ers — such as scholar Cai­ley Hall or blog­gers Sarah Wen­dell and Candy Tan — ac­knowl­edge that the books most of­ten de­pict monog­a­mous sex­ual re­la­tion­ships be­tween white, het­ero­sex­ual cou­ples as the nor­ma­tive, univer­sal man­i­fes­ta­tion of love. These de­bates were reignited with the re­lease of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which Katie Roiphe in­ter­preted as tes­ti­fy­ing to a woman’s “fan­tasy of be­ing dom­i­nated or over­come by a man.”

In the early 1980s, still the hey­day of the bodice rip­per, lit­er­ary critic Jan­ice Rad­way set out to prove the haters wrong. In her clas­sic 1984 study, “Read­ing the Ro­mance,” for which she in­ter­viewed fans of the genre, she con­cluded that the nov­els’ plots of­ten al­lowed women to work through feel­ings of op­pres­sion and un­hap­pi­ness. But these books also of­fered an al­ter­na­tive to their plight, hold­ing out “the prom­ise of utopian bliss.”

Lit­er­ary crit­ics to­day con­tinue to demon­strate that Abrams’s nov­els are not at all anoma­lous; ro­mances, new and old, are of­ten po­lit­i­cally sub­ver­sive. Pamela Regis posits that ro­mances are the sto­ries of hero­ines over­com­ing ob­sta­cles and that women read them “be­cause they are in love with freedom.” Writ­ing re­cently in the Los An­ge­les Re­view of Books, Cat Sebastian ar­gues that ro­mance’s in­sis­tence “on joy and love . . . is noth­ing less than rad­i­cal,” while Hall writes that ro­mance ex­hibits a com­mit­ment to “fe­male hap­pi­ness and ful­fill­ment still lack­ing in most canon­i­cal works of lit­er­a­ture.” And while ro­mance is still over­whelm­ingly white and het­ero­sex­ual, with only 6.2 per­cent of the genre’s nov­els in 2017 penned by writ­ers of color, recent au­thors like Abrams rep­re­sent an im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion to mak­ing the genre more di­verse.

We can see ro­mance’s vi­sion of fe­male sol­i­dar­ity par­tic­u­larly well in Abrams’s novel “Never Tell,” which os­ten­si­bly de­tails the pursuit of a de­ranged serial killer with a pen­chant for word games. But “Never Tell” is also the story of the pro­tag­o­nist, Erin, a woman of color re­cov­er­ing from phys­i­cal and emo­tional abuse at the hands of a pro­fes­sor who ex­ploited her naivete. In one scene, Erin and her love in­ter­est en­counter Lindy, a woman with “ugly bruises [that] marred café au lait skin.” Ex­plain­ing that her hus­band beat her af­ter she got a job, Lindy in­sists, “I don’t de­serve no bet­ter.” Erin re­sponds: “No one owns you. You are no­body’s prop­erty.” This en­counter echoes an ear­lier one in which Erin imag­ines her­self as her abuser’s prop­erty — his “thoughts were hers; his de­sires all that mat­tered.” Abrams por­trays both women of color, vic­tims of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, as shar­ing a strug­gle and sup­port­ing one an­other.

By show­ing how Erin’s ex­pe­ri­ences ex­tend be­yond her own life, Abrams in­vites the reader to par­tic­i­pate in an imag­ined com­mu­nity ded­i­cated to self-own­er­ship and mu­tual sup­port. “We have to see the good that oth­ers see in us,” Erin tells Lindy. Abrams wants this for her read­ers as much as for her char­ac­ters. Her fic­tion, which aims to make her read­ers iden­tify with char­ac­ters ex­pe­ri­enc­ing their self-worth, po­ten­tially em­pow­ers women, while also en­cour­ag­ing them to see the good in one an­other.

If Abrams’s sto­ries of flush­ing faces and soft whis­pers ini­tially seem dreamy-eyed and dis­con­nected from her pol­i­tics, this is largely be­cause we treat women’s fic­tion as if it weren’t se­ri­ous lit­er­a­ture. Abrams doesn’t see it this way. “I revel,” she says, “in hav­ing been . . . part of a genre that is read by mil­lions and mil­lions of women.” She ac­knowl­edges that her po­lit­i­cal can­di­dacy, too, is pro­pelled by “the African Amer­i­can women’s com­mu­nity.” And yes, her nov­els, like most ro­mances, end with a woman find­ing her man. But their rep­re­sen­ta­tion of fe­male sol­i­dar­ity still echoes the ethos of her un­prece­dented cam­paign. Palmer Rampell, a post­doc­toral fel­low at the Amer­i­can Acad­emy of Arts and Sciences, is writ­ing a book about genre fic­tion.

MELINA MARA/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Stacey Abrams, the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee for gov­er­nor in Ge­or­gia, is also the author of eight ro­mance nov­els. “My prin­ci­ples flow through and are ev­i­dent in ev­ery­thing I write,” she says.

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